Can immunotherapy 2.0 strategies save the cancer vaccine field?

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Allan B. Haberman, Ph.D

CTLs attacking cancer cells.

 

On September 15, 2017, Bavarian Nordic’s Phase 3 trial of its cancer vaccine Prostvac ended in failure. Prostvac failed to improve overall survival in patients with metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer, as determined by the clinical trial.

We had listed Prostvac in Chapter 5 and in Table 5-2 of our 2017 report, Cancer Immunotherapy: Building on Initial Successes to Improve Clinical Outcomes, as a cancer vaccine that was in Phase 3 clinical trials. However, as we stated in that chapter, “It is possible that one or more of the experimental agents listed in Table 5-2 may [also] experience late-stage failure.” That is because the cancer vaccine field has been subject to a high rate of clinical failure, including several late-stage failures in 2016.

Despite the high rate of failure in the cancer vaccine field, there are now two FDA approved cancer vaccines— sipuleucel-T (Dendreon/Valeant’s Provenge) and talimogene laherparepvec (Amgen’s Imlygic/T-Vec), the latter of which is an oncolytic virus, rather than a true cancer vaccine. However, both of these agents are rather marginal therapies. Sipuleucel-T has an apparently minimal effect and is very expensive and difficult to manufacture. T-Vec must be injected directly into a tumor, and as a monotherapy, there is no evidence for improvement of overall survival or effects on distant metastases. However, researchers have hypothesized that as a directly-injected agent, T-Vec might produce an inflammatory tumor microenvironment that will provide an ideal target for checkpoint inhibitors. Thus, researchers have had expectations that combination therapies of T-Vec with checkpoint inhibitors which are now in progress may yield much better results.

Indeed, on October 6, 2017, a peer-reviewed Phase 2 published study indicates that a combination of Imlygic and Bristol-Myers Squibb’s (BMS’) CTLA4 checkpoint inhibitor Ipilimumab (Yervoy) doubles response rates in advanced melanoma as compared to Yervoy alone. The published trial results show that the objective response rate for the combination was 39%, compared to 18% for Yervoy alone. With respect to complete responses, the combination gave13% as compared to 7% for Yervoy alone. Responses occurred in patients with and without visceral disease and in uninjected lesions after combination treatment, according to the study.

Amgen’s head of R&D, Sean E. Harper MD says that the trial provides an important proof-of-concept for combining the complementary mechanisms of an oncolytic viral immunotherapy and a checkpoint inhibitor to enhance antitumor effects, adding that the company intends to test Imlygic in combination other checkpoint inhibitors in “a variety of tumor types”.

Imlygic—in combination with another checkpoint inhibitor, pembrolizumab (Merck’s PD-1 inhibitor Keytruda)—is in a Phase 3 trial (KEYNOTE-034, clinical trial number NCT02263508) in advanced melanoma. This trial is expected to yield preliminary results in 2018. In 2014, the Phase 1b/2 MASTERKEY-256 trial of the Imlygic/Keytruda combination in advanced melanoma showed an overall response rate (ORR) of around 56%.

These data indicate that the immunotherapy 2.0 strategy of using Imlygic to generate an inflammatory tumor microenvironment may produce a synergistic clinical effect and enhanced anti-tumor immune response in patients with metastatic melanoma who are also treated with a checkpoint inhibitor.

As we discuss in Chapter 5 of our 2017 Cancer Immunotherapy report, several cancer vaccine developers are pursuing a similar strategy—use cancer vaccines to render tumors inflamed [i.e. especially with cytotoxic tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs)], and use checkpoint inhibitors to induce regression of the inflamed tumors. In some cases, cancer vaccines are being tested in combination with checkpoint inhibitors in Phase 1 or Phase 2 clinical trials, rather than the “traditional” approach of first getting a vaccine approved and then conducting trials of the vaccine in combination with other agents. The hope is that testing a vaccine in combination with a checkpoint inhibitor in early stage clinical trials might prevent clinical failure of a potentially useful cancer vaccine. However, whether this strategy will work for any particular vaccine remains to be seen.

Neoantigen cancer vaccines

Another novel immunotherapy 2.0 strategy for cancer vaccine discovery and development discussed in our report involves neoantigen science. Recent studies exploring mechanisms by which TILs and other components of the immune system recognize tumor cells and differentiate them from noncancer cells have focused on “neoantigens”—i.e. antigens that are specific for cancer cells as opposed to normal, noncancer cells. These neoantigens are associated with somatic mutations that arise in the evolution of tumor cells. Neoantigen-specific TILs appear to mediate tumor regression, and this antitumor activity may be enhanced by checkpoint inhibitor therapy. Such studies have led researchers to hypothesize that personalized neoantigen-based vaccines may be more effective than earlier types of cancer vaccines. Some researchers have therefore been attempting to develop technology platforms for vaccine design based on determination of neoantigens in tumors.

In particular, neoantigen researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the Broad Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital recently founded a company, Neon Therapeutics (Cambridge, MA). Neon focuses on neoantigen science and technology for the development of neoantigen-based therapeutic vaccines and T-cell therapies to treat cancer.

These researchers published a report in the 13 July issue of Nature describing their Phase 1 study in patients with previously untreated high-risk melanoma of a personalized neoantigen vaccine designated NEO-PV-01 by Neon Therapeutics and in Chapter 5 of our report.

As discussed in our report, Neon’s lead clinical program, NEO-PV-01, builds upon initial clinical trials developed collaboratively by the Broad Institute and the Dana-Farber. NEO-PV-01 is a personalized vaccine that is custom-designed and manufactured to include targets for the immune system [i.e. naturally-processed, major histocompatibility complex (MHC)-binding, neoantigen peptide epitopes] that are unique to an individual’s cancer. The 13 July Nature report focuses on results of the ongoing Phase 1 clinical trial designated NCT01970358 of the combination of poly-ICLC [poly-inosinic acid/poly-cytidylic acid/poly-lysine, an adjuvant] and multiple neoantigen peptide epitopes in melanoma.

As discussed in that Nature paper, neoantigens were long envisioned as optimal targets for anti-tumor immune responses. However, the systematic identification of neoantigens in a particular patient’s tumors only became feasible with the availability of massively parallel sequencing for detection of coding mutations, and of machine learning technology to reliably predict those naturally-processed mutated peptides that bind with high affinity to autologous major histocompatibility (MHC) molecules. (The term “naturally-processed” refers to antigenic peptide epitopes that are processed intracellularly and which bind with high affinity to autologous class I or class II MHC molecules. The MHC/peptide complexes are then recognized by T cells.)

In the study described in the 13 July Nature paper, the researchers demonstrated the feasibility, safety, and immunogenicity of a vaccine (designated NEO-PV-01 as discussed earlier), which targets up to 20 predicted personal tumor neoantigens. Vaccine-induced polyfunctional CD4+ and CD8+ T cells targeted 58 (60%) and 15 (16%) of 97 unique neoantigens across patients, respectively. These T cells discriminated mutated from wild-type antigens, and in some cases directly recognized autologous tumor. Of six vaccinated patients, four had no recurrence as of 25 months post-vaccination. Two other patients who had recurrent disease were subsequently treated with the anti-PD-1 antibody pembrolizumab (Merck’s Keytruda). These two patients experienced complete tumor regression, with expansion of the repertoire of neoantigen-specific T cells.

These results strongly support further development of the researchers’ neoantigen vaccine approach, both alone and in combination with checkpoint inhibitors or other immunotherapies. Neon Therapeutics is currently sponsoring an open-label Phase 1b clinical study of NEO-PV-01 plus adjuvant in combination with nivolumab (BMS’ Opdivo) in patients with melanoma, smoking-associated non-small cell lung carcinoma (NSCLC) or transitional cell bladder carcinoma (clinical trial number NCT02897765). Neon entered into a collaboration with BMS to perform this clinical trial in late 2015.

Neon is also developing NEO-PTC-01, a personal neoantigen autologous T cell therapy, which is now in the research and process development stage. As discussed in Chapter 6 of our 2017 cancer immunotherapy report, neoantigen science is also a factor in adoptive cellular immunotherapy for cancer, especially in Steven A. Rosenberg MD, PhD’s recent studies of TIL therapy.

Other neoantigen cancer vaccine companies

In addition to Neon, other young companies that specialize in development of neoantigen-based cancer vaccines include BioNTech AG (Mainz, Germany), Gritstone Oncology (Emeryville, CA and Cambridge, MA), ISA Pharmaceuticals (Leiden, The Netherlands), Agenus (Lexington, MA), and Caperna (Cambridge, MA). Of these companies, BioNTech and Caperna [which is a Moderna (Cambridge, MA) venture company] are developing RNA-based personalized neoantigen vaccines. The other companies are developing peptide neoantigen vaccines based on their proprietary technologies.

Conclusions

As discussed in this article, and in our 2017 report, Cancer Immunotherapy: Building on Initial Successes to Improve Clinical Outcomes, researchers and developers are applying several immunotherapy 2.0 approaches to attempt to reverse the high rate of failure in the cancer vaccine field.

Moreover, neoantigen science has a potentially wide field of application, ranging from improving clinical outcomes of treatments with checkpoint inhibitors to development of more effective cancer vaccines and of novel cellular immunotherapies.

Our report contains materials designed to enable readers to understand complex issues in neoantigen science, and especially to understand applications of neoantigen science in research reports, clinical trials, corporate news, and product development.

For more information on our report, Cancer Immunotherapy: Building on Initial Successes to Improve Clinical Outcomes, or to order it, see the CHI Insight Pharma Reports website.
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